Monday, December 15, 2008


It seems that I am to write a little piece here about titles and their metaphysical independence from the entitled. I have no idea why I feel obligated to do so. It's as if  I'm possessed by a spirit which read Borges in a truly loose translation and (only vaguely comprehending the philosophic principals--namely, Idealism--that seem to lie behind the master's fictions) decided to cynically hammer Borgesian motifs into an unlikely ontological schema derived from the practice of architectural design.


Anyway....a few years back I had access to a fabrication lab and several capable computer-numerically-controlled subtractive machines, the most important of which for this parable was a water jet that cut--well, nearly anything under it--with a highspeed fluid chocked full of abrasive corundum sand. As a graduate student in architecture in an astonishingly exclusive program, as part of a course dealing with the concepts involved with "craftsmanship," I had been given a fairly nebulous assignment to develop a technique involving the process of "inlay" in some form.

I was already fascinated but dismissive of architectural numerology, which had not been annointed as "generative" or "algorithmic" design then and largely manifested itself in many of my fellow students and our supposed instructors as a bizarre near-religious reverence for certain mathematical relationships that were to "be found in nature," most notably "the Golden Section" or phi.  I held then (as now) that you could establish that any kind of mathematical relationship had a consecrating "basis in natural forms"--if only you looked long and hard enough. It wasn't the particular magic numbers that was the maniacal stance that one assumed in pursuing them. Therefore I was always postulating (but not publicly, lest I be branded a heretic) that certain numbers were Really Important in Odd Ways. For instance (and I still like to do this) I would decide that the number 17 was an Evil Number because no one really likes it and therefore designs that had angular and linear measurements derived in cryptic ways from the number 17 would be Om-in-nous and Dis-turb-ing.  Of course, you couldn't just use multiples or divisions of 17 for these relationships. There were special rules.  For instance, the first Evil Multiple of 17 was 33, not 34...because no one really likes the number 33. And etc.--I would develop whole frameworks of contrived portentousness that could be used to secretly justify this, that, or the other choice in any architectural design quandary. 

I took some arrangement of rectangles proportioned according to some such instantly and callously sanctified mathematical relationship, copied the grid three times, and finally skewed each copy according to some equally arbitrary but instantly hallowed corollary to my numerological conceit. (I'm delighted to admit that, having analyzed the resulting geometry again tonight, for the first time in years, I find it absolutely impossible to reconstruct from the ratios of my measurements the particular numerological system that I used for this, although I clearly remember developing one! Ah, the ghost of intent!)

For my project I developed the notion that I would overlap (once again, according to some arbitrary rule system) these skewed grids; combine the results using a system of "perverse" Boolean operations; and finally use these--and a convenient circle with a diameter determined by the shortest length of the water jet's cutting bed--as tool paths for cutting four different sorts of materials so that the resulting different-thickness and differently-textured fragments could be layered and registered in a way consistent of with my arbitrary other words, inlaid.

Initially I had in mind as a subjects for this heretical mathematical surgery some sheet steel, half-inch plywood, some quarter-inch marble tile, and a piece of concrete cast in a half-ovoid "dome" with  the flat underside fitting into the cutting-bed-limited circle.  

A few tests with the jet indicated that the thicker of my various targets would not cut with enough cleanness for me to risk expensive, new-bought materials, nor could the tool itself be trusted not to make random extensions or other unexpected modifications to the cutting paths.  So I filled a crate with various pieces of sheet-good trash pulled from construction sites and tested the contents in turn against the jet. In the end, the inlay process was accomplished with a piece of warped exterior siding; some corroded galvanized duct-metal; some hundred-year-old fir that had once been sub-flooring in a Victorian house; cementious backing board; and a thick ovoid "dome" of plaster of Paris (as opposed to concrete--and cast in a milled form made of inexpensive coarse-cell expanded polystyrene foam that gave it a texture of either bone or coarse-cell e.p.s. foam, depending on your generosity of spirit).  Given the less-than-immaculate conditions of the materials, the inaccuracies and accidental erosion resulting from the jet's action are not apparent.  It all seems deliberate.  Which is of course the real secret to a successful design undertaking: make it look like you meant for that (whatever accident "that" is) to happen all along.

As I glued it all up, I added some oxidized Dutch-metal "fake gold" leaf on the lowest wooden surface to give the piece that extra, nearly-hidden dollop of degraded Byzantine glamour. I had already decided that after the assignment was completed and reviewed that I would treat my assembled artifact as an objet d'art and hang it on a (sturdy) wall somewhere.  (I should explain that architecture school--largely a prolonged and painful hazing ritual--was all about doing pointless, fad-ish, complex things that consumed much time or much material or both while holding no lasting aesthetic, pragmatic, or experiential value for the student or anyone else. Consequently, at every opportunity and with varying degrees of success, I strove to subvert the whole pointless rite-of-passage and produce designs and objects which could be secretly re-purposed to something other than the detritus of an architectural education.)

In terms of technique I more than met the requirements of the course, but even here there were questions from the instructor and the other students about "the design" when I presented the product of my effort. This was a small, unpopular seminar, and the instructor was decidedly not one of those narcissistic, insecure martinets (the recognized or self-proclaimed luminaries of the field) that one tended to find in the more sought-after courses and studios. As I was approaching the end of my degree, and I had a sense that I had wasted huge sums of my savings on my tuition and even more valuable years of my life, I for once had little qualms in admitting that I had cynically developed a unique numerology as an artifice for proceeding with my work. To my surprise, no one was offended or accused me of abrogating my "responsibilities" as a "designer." I suspect that was because the seminar was shared between the graduate school of architecture and the very foreign (to us) graduate school of art...provision had been made for the artists who were perfectly used to assuming ulterior, exterior, cynical, and entirely provisional strategies for the creation of objects without any value other than aesthetics and personal symbolism. OR perhaps no one understood my explanation. OR they instantly dismissed me as mad. (One can never rule out the last.)

"So does it have a title?" someone--an artist, I think--asked.

"Yes, something like 'Abstract with Rotations at Such-and-such Degrees'."

"Really?  That's all?" someone laughed.

And then one of those strange things happened: an idea appeared in my head without prompting, without any clear antecedent. I heard myself say,  "Let's just call it Portrait of Agamemnon, then. Doesn't that change everything?"

And it did, as if some magic had been worked.  

To this day, when I walk by the piece (which hangs at the top of a flight of stairs in my house, as pictured here, close to an item featured in another post), I find myself thinking about royal, arrogant, doomed Agamemnon and his tragic milieu, which I have since felt compelled to study and understand as well as a non-Mycenaean or a non-archaeologist can. I don't find myself, unless I make an effort, thinking about a spurious numerological operation performed on construction debris. As I have noted, I can no longer remember exactly what system I developed for determining the geometrical relationships. It was most certainly not one based on the number 17 (although--no kidding--I later did use exactly that for my Pavilion for Oblivion project!)

I wish I still had access to a water jet. I'd really like to develop a heretical numerology that could cut an Electra companion piece.

Monday, November 17, 2008


It won't go away.

My Stormhouse project apparently came to the notice of the company that produces one of the higher-end computer modeling and rendering applications, and they quite generously provided me with access to software products that are either more expensive than I would ever purchase for myself or simply unavailable commercially at this point.

And the result? (Compare to the published versions, in this earlier post.)

Startling, as far as I am concerned. I am impressed with the seeming "photorealism"...what an amazing tool.

Now my little apocalyptic fantasy looks build-able, as fresh as a sparkling new toy just out of its shrinkwrap. Fresher than it ever could look, built.

But it was always, even when rendered less realistically, something that could be built, or at least it was close, in terms of design, to that generally sought-after condition. I spent some effort, like a good little architectural designer, on researching materials and building technology. It might not be the most practical item to erect on a storm-strewn, iceberg-threatened Antarctic island's coast, but there is no reason why it wouldn't stand up and provide a certain amount of decent shelter, there or anywhere, until a world-ending Something really did smash it flat.

Should it look build-able, though? Should it be an assembly of things culled from a building supply catalog, given my "program"? As if there is a special chapter in the Sweets catalog for cataclysm-resistant products!

Of course, the Stormhouse program arrived long after the idea for the building, which was (I am almost certain) suggested by a near-ruinous Quonset Hut-style structure I saw fleetingly through the smudged-fingerprints-window of a train I took down the coast nearly a decade ago. I adapted the general form to several programs, initially as a quasi-public boathouse that was part of a poorly-imagined and quite-unlikely project assigned by a callous instructor in a dingy architecture school. Later, after I made my own soul-sucking accommodation with the monstrous agglutination of institutions and "professional" regulations that produces architectural cannon-fodder in my country, I redrew it and reworked it as a callous instructor in a dingy architecture school myself, as a design and illustration example for my tyrannized students. It wasn't until someone (not an architect) saw this rendering of an interim version from three years ago

and wrote me, "What? Is this waiting for the Hurricane?" that I began to understand what I had imagined and the black tide of the Eschaton it was meant to resist.

I'll ask again, Should it look build-able, though?

By "looking build-able," I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong--at all, at all--with the design and rendering of architectural projects using those not-so-new-fangled computer programs. Only senectitude and fear could lead anyone to spurn tools that allow one to view and adapt a design from inside--from outside--from multiple sides and in multiple ways at once--for the old smeary haptic tools of graphite and ink on ground-up trees. I've come to despise several architects I once admired, after reading their unexpected Luddite diatribes upon the crippling effects of the use of computers in architectural design. The common fear among the supposed greats of learning something new--of adapting to new circumstances and techniques--is simply more crippling, and more fatal, than any tool.

I am crippled as a designer, but not by my tools. I'm crippled by all those years of dungeon-work in that dingy concrete hell of an architecture a lowly drudge-serf intern in some big a maker of pretty pictures of steel-framed cathedrals to crony neo-Con theo-Con capitalism! I only think in terms of structural-steel-arch roofing systems and reinforced fiberglass pilings...when I should be thinking of other things entirely. Why would anyone wait for the world to end in something like this? Coast Guard-approved fiberglass pilings? I should be specifying the bones of murdered giants! Steel roofing? It should be woven spiderweb stiffened with a generous coating of mummia, the embalming lacquer used on the corpses of dead Pharaohs.

How do I get the grand dead weight of architecture--soul-crushing education, regulation, institution, profession--out of my imagination?  What computer program will help me work out that?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Typical Conditions

Yet more labyrinth project. Chad Smith, editor of Tropolism, recently suggested to me that reading of a narrative blog can actually be similar to the experience of a work of architecture itself...that "meaning accrues" over time. I strongly suspect I have begun to devote myself to some kind of architectural meta-project with this narration.

There are several landmarks I seem to have preemptively declared necessary for this project, such as the afore-mentioned tower and the "monument to minotaurs." But what of more generic situations? Wandering through a maze or a labyrinth, what conditions (in that italicized architectural sense) does one encounter?

...passages (possibly of more than one type, on more than one level)...
...major and minor intersections...
...dead ends (in a maze, not a classical labyrinth)...

(It seems to me that there should be professional "cant" terms for these conditions, and for their variations, similar to the butchered and misapplied French terms that English-speaking architects use to obscure their own craft . Contemplate the term parti, for instance, so often used when the word "scheme" or simply "idea" would do just as well. For that matter, what is the appropriate designation for a designer of mazes and/or labyrinths? A daedalus--a non-proper noun, to make the distinction from the antique Minoan inventor--perhaps?)

What have I not considered? And how should those conditions be demarcated, if at all? I originally began this list of conditions with an idea of understanding my progress, if any, towards some point where I might consider myself reasonably done with this project and therefore free to move on to something else. But what if there are no conditions to typically satisfy? What if every crystalline moment in the Labyrinth--whether the result of a deliberate, strategical move or a twilight-confused wandering--is a unique and previously undefined situation that shares little identity--of the sort usually indicated with the abbreviated adjective "Typ." (for typical) in architectural drawings--with any other ahead or behind. If the sort of Labyrinth I am projecting is in fact a sort of puzzle (a maze) while having a metaphysically unique path like the Labyrinth of Knossos in the myth of Theseus, would it not be a more effective situation to have no typical conditions? Would it not be more effective for conditions to only sometimes--occasionally--seem repetitive or typical, while in fact they are all truly, cryptically unique?

In this case, how will I ever know when I am done?

...or for that matter, when I actually started?

In my own house, at the top of a flight of stairs where a short corridor ends, is a sculpture I made years ago that refers to a place-marker I had noticed in a different sort of maze/labyrinth from any previously discussed. When I made it, I was originally thinking about the kind of minor shrine one finds in (or even over) small squares and intersections in that most labyrinthine of famous cities, Venice. Like this one, from the sestiere of San Polo:

It has occurred to me, very recently, that these sculptures of saints, messiahs, and their mothers are in fact a kind of non-literate way-finding: Here I am under the Madonna of This, as opposed to that calle that runs by the shrine to the Saint of That: an effective technique for deliberately converting the quotidian (an otherwise anonymous and unremarkable urban confluence) to the exceptional (Il Campo della Madonna della ThisThatOrL'otraCosa).

(As an aside, I should note that possibility of that I must design a permanently-inhabited labyrinth--i.e., a city--further immensely complicates my attempt to define the scope of this project...a whole potentially-infinite range of habitation might be required. Does a Labyrinth require homes, shops, markets, public squares, service alleys, hospitals, prisons, cemeteries? Why not parks, pastures, ruins, and wilderness too? Or even unique spaces that are less readily categorized...less typical? )


Now, I made that sculpture or relief or whatever it is out of scrap building materials and broken electronic components left at a construction site in 2000, long before I considered this Labyrinth and even before I decided, in my early middle age, to go to architecture school. I don't actually know quite how this sculpture became a replica of some begrimed corner shrine displaced from some technologically-minded medieval period. In my sketchbook it is clear that this began as simply a housing for a stylized mask originally destined for another sculpture but left unused.

Is it possible I was already working on this labyrinth project?

And no, I don't know what it is that I am drawing at the end of the passage, at the dead-end....yet.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Way-finding in the Labyrinth

More images and thoughts from my labyrinth project. Architecture as personal eschatology?

When I worked as an intern in a large architecture firm, the term way-finding was quite casually used to describe the placement of signs, markings, and other devices (including automated speakers and other electronic devices) that in an emergency (a fire or earthquake, for instance) allow people find their way to an exit or a so-called place of refuge (where they could safely wait out the disaster, and await rescue by the authorities).

Does my miniaturized-labyrinth need way-finding?

That depends on one's definition of a labyrinth. Now, the actual Labyrinth of the Night (not my minature copy) is supposedly a "natural" labyrinth, a network of channels, sinkholes, and canyons largely composed of a set of raised fault-blocks (horsts) and normal depressed faults (grabens). Apparently these are created through tectonic processes, and there are multiple examples of such features on several worlds. Of course, there is something a bit odd and distinctive about our particular Labyrinth...perhaps only the Cthonic name, that suggests that one way or another there is something beyond the shearing and subsidence of great rocky plates at work here...something uncanny.

(As an aside, let me note that Death Valley in North America is a similar natural feature. Although impressive and also ominously-named, the Valley is missing something ineffable and disturbing that is present in the Labyrinth, at least in my opinion. Although either natural labyrinth is likely to kill a visitor who wanders in on foot--unprepared or supposedly-prepared--at the wrong time of year or with inadequate supplies, one has the sense that there is a compelling reason to visit the Labyrinth, aside from the typical scenic desert-and-mountain views. There are apparently people who are drawn to risk the Labyrinth of the Night, knowing full well that something drastic probably will happen to them there. As suggested in a previous post, my project at least for the moment is--I think--to equip and signify the entrance to the Labyrinth.)

In general English outside of the field of geography, however, the word labyrinth is casually used as a synonym for maze, the typical tour puzzle with which we are all familiar. But a moment's research anywhere creates a slightly contradictory distinction.

A proper, "classical" labyrinth seemingly is not a puzzle at all, but rather a winding but unambiguous path to a certain center point. There are no dead ends or false routes in a "classical" labyrinth, as there are in a maze. If one remembers the story of Theseus though, it is clear that the Minotaur did not reside (by this definition) in a labyrinth, because in a "classical" labyrinth the hero would have needed no assistance to find center where dwells the monster, or to find his way out again once the deed was done. But he did need Ariadne's red ball of twine.

Nevertheless, the story resolutely refers to the Minotaur's Daedalus-designed lair as the labyrinth, not the maze. I can only imagine that this is because, on a metaphysical level, prior to the Theseus Event there was really only a single route possible in the Cretan maze, which was thus a labyrinth: the path--all paths--led to the maw of the monster.

Even though it it clear that as a "natural" labyrinth (unlike a "classical" one) in terms of possible routes it has more in common with the idea of a maze, I suspect something similar to that metaphysical truth is true of the real Labyrinth of the Night: Although there are many faults and chasms that seem (from the aerial photographs) to lead off for dozens if not hundreds of miles to nowhere and blind canyons, there is in fact one inevitable destination if you are on foot in the mists of the Labyrinth.

There are in fact an infinite number of possible paths for getting to that destination. It should be honestly labeled a destiny, not a destination.

So, if for some reason I have decided to create a miniaturized, or even symbolic version of the Labyrinth of the Night (and even miniaturized as it is, it contains mile after mile of paths), do I want it to be a labyrinth in a "classical" sense, or do I want it to be a maze? If the point is to get the pilgrims (I increasing think that is the best term for the people who will use this project) ready in some fashion for the true Labyrinth, then I should add some kind of way-finding mechanism to ensure that I do not entrap them, perhaps fatally, in a lesser maze.

Which prompts a related question: Is it part of my purpose to warn the the Pilgrims of the gravity and inevitable consequences of entering the true Labyrinth?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An Entrance to the Labyrinth

The unlikely "success" of my Pavilion for Oblivion and Stormhouse projects implies that if I have a particular forte as an architectural designer, it is as a fantasist; on the other hand, perhaps if I have a particular strength as a fantasist it seems to lay with fantasies concerning architecture. Now, I would have developed these projects even if they were destined to never be published; it's something I do with my spare time (such as it is). And I have recently been considering a thematically-related project, as yet untitled. It seems to me that since I have the opportunity with this blog to demonstrate the whole development process, I should make this and similar items a recurring topic.

The dry double chasms of the great valley fold back slightly, split confusedly into four or five lesser channels, and then abruptly terminate in a cliff-bound, sunken plain composed of patches of dune divided by gullies and small rocky outcroppings. There doesn't seem to be a name to that depression; for the moment (or until I learn its historic moniker) let us call it the Plain of the Knot, for that seems to be its role in ending the wanderings of the valley. To the north of the Knot the rocks rise to the inevitable badlands, here called (picturesquely enough) the Ditches of Fortune; to the south the plain joins the circular remains of a great crater and then the uplands of the Plain of Sinai.

To the west is (finally) the Labyrinth of the Night. In the mornings a white fog courses through the grabens of the Labyrinth; at certain times of year, under the right conditions, the mist will flow from the mouths of the labyrinth like the ghost of a catastrophic flood and fill the near sandy lowlands and arroyos of the Knot, leaving a rime of bright frost on the ridges of the dunes.

One might expect that there would be a limited number of entrances to the Labyrinth...say, three...and that some ominous distinction would be attached to each. But in fact, there is no such obvious set of choices; there are in fact at least six major passes into the maze, from fifteen to five miles wide, along with countless hidden paths through or over the western cliffs.

Exactly what choice should the weary traveler make then? Or is a choice to be made for him? For that matter, is he a pilgrim seeking or an exile under sentence? These distinctions have not been made clear at this point.

But surely there should be some monument to this cusp in his journey...and a vantage point for surveying the route or routes ahead towards whatever destiny he expects or which awaits him in the obscurity of the Labyrinth.

The Knot is larger than one might imagine it, much like all the terrain features in this region: 180 miles north to south, approximately 75 east to west. Near the center of this irregular oval there is a smaller plateau or natural terrace, approximately 900 feet higher than most of the surrounding basin of the Knot. Approximately 8 miles wide, it is shaped like a ginkgo leaf, with the "stem" pointing into the maze. Given the dearth of any comparably-distinctive areas, this small mesa will have to do. To the immediate west of the stem is an irregular pit or sinkhole, approximately 2300 feet deeper than the level of the plain of the Knot, that could potentially have some value.

I know, from the map, that the high point of the stem of the Leaf should be the best point for a vista of the western cliffs including the closest entrance to the Labyrinth. Unfortunately, what images I have from this vantage (I am not sure they should be referred to as photographs), while beguiling in the typical sort of way that views of deserts and mountains often are, do not seem to clearly indicate that one is looking at something more than just such a view, something as potentially arresting as a natural maze with inescapably Cthonic overtones. As with so much of the geography hereabouts, "from the ground" much of the potential significance of the vista seems lost...even on those rare occasions when the fog is said to pour from the Labyrinth into the Knot, no doubt breaking around the stem of the Leaf, it is doubtful that this overlook would measure up even to what Friedrich's frock-coated Wanderer Above the Mist sees from his less objectively sublime vantage.

Well, then: that should be at least part of the program. I must assist the pilgrim/exile/traveler in perceiving the almost-delirious idiosyncrasy of his situation.

A first thought is to double that Labyrinth: I shall make a symbol of a symbol of an old story that was a symbol of something else, perhaps. As the real Labyrinth cuts into the western plateau, let my Voodoo doll of a miniature Labyrinth cut into the mesa of the Leaf. The imposition of that network that meanders near-infinitely across the uplands on the finite surface of the bluff will no doubt create all sorts of unusual issues. Already I see how one spur...minor, south-pointing, and ending nowhere in the real the miniature cuts provocatively towards the high point of the Leaf, near the stem where I had already resolved to place some sort of significant programmatic element (a Tower, perhaps, already cloven and therefore requiring no thunderbolt). Coincidentally, the portion of the miniaturized Labyrinth that extends past the mesa to west then curves and sends a single path towards a high point or island in the fore-mentioned sinkhole (which deserves its own grotesquely-portentous name like the other geographic features I have taken the liberty of labeling: I shall henceforth refer to it as the Pit).

...a good place for a monument to minotaurs, if I have ever seen one.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Algorithms for Architectonics

More examination of the generation of architecture through algorithms.

The most convincing algorithmic processes--meaning, that they generate shapes that most resemble architectural forms--with which I have yet experimented seem to be composed of sheets of a plywood-like material along with various rods and columns that seem to be proportionally similar to wood framing or steel-tube frames. But of course this resemblance to architectural form, or even to real physical objects, breaks down on close examination. It's easy to find bits of the generated model that behave in ways that building components or even real objects cannot: at best they defy the possibility of gravity, while at other times they project through or intersect with neighboring forms in a fashion that solid matter (and building components) cannot.

Now, with careful tweaking of the set of operations that constitute these algorithms, I could conceivably create a situation where those flaws did not occur, and where the generated shapes even included inhabitable space. Of course, it is possible that by so doing I am adding an entirely pointless iteration to the design process: I no longer design the architecture itself, but instead I design a set of formulas which themselves design the architecture the way I would have without the mechanism of the generative algorithm. If there is a difference between the architecture I would design and what the algorithm designs, the difference is there because either I made mistakes in designing the algorithm, or else the limitations of the system employing the algorithm are such that it cannot yet completely simulate my design process.

Of course, the preceding assumes that the design of architecture is in fact a procedural process (i.e., a mathematical algorithm) itself. I'm relatively certain that I do not agree with that assumption.

It has occurred to me that my concerns with the algorithmic generation of architecture (1-the result is not realizable without extreme effort; 2) the process includes a pointless iteration; 3) the process assumes
architectural design is equivalent to math) could be rendered moot if I used the technology in a completely different manner, as already suggested in a previous post.

I am proposing that this generative technique would be far more useful as part of an architectural cognate for
decalcomania or similar techniques for creating suggestive forms that, following elaboration or subtractive editing, would not otherwise be conceivable. These painting techniques--popularized by such Surrealist artists as Max Ernst--were belated rediscoveries or implementations of an inventive device originally recommended by Leonardo da Vinci in the treatise A Way of Stimulating and Arousing the Mind to Various Inventions, where he advised that one should “look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of different kinds of stones; if you have to invent some scene, you may discover a similarity with different kinds of landscapes, embellished with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in a varied arrangement: or, again, you may see battles and figures in action or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects which you could reduce to complete and well-drawn forms.” I believe that the key is to begin with a complex field of visual information of limited organization and a restricted range of components; the human mind will begin to edit this limited chaos in such a way to percieve a meaningful shape pattern that is/was not there before that act of perception.*

It seems to me that algorithmic generation of three-dimensional forms could satisfy that requirement for that complex-field-of-many-objects-of-a-limited-range-of-types in a way particularly suitable for the creation of architectural forms if the components generated by the algorithm are reminiscent of the typical forms that compose architecture. In other words: 1) I create a formula that generates shapes in a unusual pattern (an act of design or chance); 2) I observe the generated assemblage and allow my meaning-seeking mind to find something there other than mathematically-prescribed alignments; 3) I elaborate, delete, simplify and otherwise edit the assemblage until the meaningful shape that was described by that vision (or delusion) is all that remains of the original math-generated assemblage.

*I should admit that I have only found quotations from this work of Da Vinci's in other essays and books. I do intend to find a full copy as soon as I can.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


I had not intended to post this project for a while, but since the item has been published and discussed in a few places online it seemed best to place a definitive version here on my own blog.

...the site (this is where to build, this is what can be put here)...the client (this is what they want, in exactly this shade of this tint of this color)...the crass economics (this is what can be put here...this is where the not-a-cent-more money can be spent)...even the the vagaries of formal operations (this is the shape...this is what the style/procedure/computer-program says happens here, as if it matters)...

Must it always go that way, petty commonplaces driving each project from assigned purpose to imperfect-if-not-botched realization? As if any of those considerations matter ultimately, at the final trumpet-blast, in the end!

That phrase "in the end itself" can conjure--in fact has conjured up a potential mythology, something with which I might defy the quotidian: this is the house where I wait for the world to come to an end.

Having latched on to this Mythology as the basis for a work of architecture, in defiance of the usual conventions and rituals I must next determine a site. Where does one go to await such an occasion? Not for me the conventional-conventions for "going out with a bang", now that I have a Mythology: no typically-grand (or even typically-snug) house in a great city; no typically-soaring cathedral for my typical-prayers; no typically-beautiful spot in a beautiful country; not even a typically-favorite little resort with a typically-special friend for company. I strive to think of some place hard to reach--for I'm not coming back--with little to call me there other than it will be one of the last places to succumb to whatever thing or things (as if it matters) will consume the world. I think of desperate literary journeys and undertakings. I remember Poe's Pym and his unfinished narrative of an unfinished voyage to the antipodes: South. All the way. Until things start to stop.

The correct site leaps off a map of the Antarctic at me: Deception Island. I like the name. The whole of existence is generally recognized as a deception; so let me witness it being swept away from the vantage of an island named in honor of the great untruth. And the map I have is from 1829, so my site is a deception now too (a volcanic island in a disputed sea is unlikely to remain geographically quiescent for decades, let alone a century and a half). My Deception Island is metaphysical: no oil spills, no noisy tourists looking for penguins and icebergs, no "research" stations waiting for the next eruption or a pointless change of sovereignty. My Deception Island waits alone, stark and unvisited in a southern sea, for the end of all deceptions.

So: a dark coast, green-less and forbidding, a bleak shore of rock and sand, backed by "ice cliffs" (from the 1829 map), north of a forbidding headland like a giant boulder. This is where (metaphysically, mythologically) I will make the last voyeuristic stand against oblivion in the appropriate architectural vessel and prepare to watch something that might be a storm (but could be any fashionable version of apocalypse, personal or universal) sweep in from the sea (my proxy for the courts of chaos).

Ship it down, pound it down, lift it up, sheath it up, insulate it in case I have to wait, put on a black cloak--and stand there waiting for the end to come up like the most picturesque of gales:

I imagine the place on pilings to last a bit longer as whatever floods in (ignoring, because this is Mythology, the animosity of wind-driven mini-bergs towards relatively-weaker fiberglass-composite poles...there is probably a way around the issue, and anyway perhaps the bergs will have all melted). The curve of the water-front elevation is a bulwark: metaphysically, spiritually hydrodynamic/aerodynamic. Back of the house is a same-elevated deck for the be-tarp-ed supplies (or nothing, depending on how long I must linger).

Since the end will come (in my Mythology) from out the sea or over it, I face the openings that face the sea with a shielding grate in front of heavy (insulated and impact-resistant, to be certain) glass set in stout steel doors. Of course, this is primarily a place to watch something or watch for something, so those shielded window-doors must open onto shielded lookout-balconies which take their brunt-shapes from the curving steel arch of the roof (minimum radius of curvature 10', according to the manufacturer). Re-purposed acrylic arena-spectator shielding will permit view of that ominous horizon. When the waves get too high, I will back into the hull-house proper, shut the grates (I'll have to heroically struggle against the wind, no doubt, to get it done), push the doors closed until the gaskets engage, and watch the last act through the glass. I probably wasn't as careful as I should have been with the flashing details, given the amount of whatever (waves, rain, tears?) dashing against the front, and the salt will eventually eat into the galvalume. But then this doesn't have to last forever:

my Stormhouse.

As with the Pavilion for Oblivion project in 2007, this project was chosen for the 2008 "Fantasy Architecture" theme issue of AIArchitect.

LINK: Picasa web album for this project
LINK: Picasa web album of images from this project's development.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Algorithms for Nostalgia

Since the subject of my first post appeared previously in several sites on the Internet, I feel that my second should be something heretofore unpublished.

Math-driven shape creation still seems all the rage, judging by a quick image search with Google under the term "generative architecture." It was just beginning to be "the thing" when I finally finished my masters; now it seems to dominate the imagery coming out of the cutting-edge architecture firms and bleeding-edge architecture schools.

Although a friend recently suggested to me that this scheme for largely formal development is essentially a perversion of the much vaunted concept of parametric modeling, I really don't have difficulty with the idea of using unusual techniques to find unique shapes. I'm all about imagery and form after all. To what are we supposed to limit parametrics? Window schedules? "BIM"? (Does anyone really go into architecture to do estimates and schedules?)

This is how it works: the script-kiddie plugs in the formula, hits "go", and--Bingo!--cool shapes. There might be other motives inferred by the designer/scripter, but the eye-candy (swoop-y, chunky, Voronoi-bubbly, stringy, or strongly-reminiscent-of-intestines...the cool-not-much-like-your-parents'-buildings-shape-factor) is clearly in the driver's seat.

Algorithmic architectural designs also make a strange appeal, I sense, to classical metaphysics. I have the feeling that I am expected to attach a kind of sacredness to the architectural shapes generated by those tedious little computer programs, much as I am expected to discern a sacerdotal ambiance in the products of the ancient forms of procedural design, accomplished (undoubtedly) with rules of proportion, straight-edges, and lots of unusual variations on the mechanical compass as opposed to a scripting language. This must be an oddly pervasive remnant of that hoary religion of Pythagoras': numbers and mathematical relationships are perfect, independent of and unaffected by our silly meatspace foibles, and thus deserving of our veneration. A building whose shape is defined by mathematical relationships is by extension also deserving of our veneration...more than one that is not so defined, anyway.

Maybe. I suspect that the "harmony" some people claim to find in certain relentlessly-mathematics-ized buildings is there because they expected it (having been told beforehand it was there), and not because there is some perceptible channel, thanks to the form-generating algorithm, to some idealized mundus alter.

Nevertheless I recently spent at little time playing with form-through-scripts. Channeling some angry forgotten Dadaist, I decided to forgo the swoopy organics and set the thing to position sheets of plywood and various typical sizes of wood studs. I hit the button and:

Instant super-sized high-rise favela! Yeah! I'll take that instead of some giant pile of animal innards any day! (We all know how much architects like shanty towns with their creative use of materials, as long as we don't have to live there.
LINK to beautiful irony.)

Well, of course it isn't really a functional if oddly-oversize shanty town. The generator isn't that intelligent; it doesn't know that you need a door here, a leaking roof there, an open sewer drain here. I could tweak the script forever until it came closer to producing the "real thing" (images/models of the real thing, in other words) but it's easier to just delete the bits that look really non-believable (studs that punch through sheets, etc.) and go with an evocative image.

And this concept (of an evocative collection of ordinary or even base things) suggested to me that I edit the script results to propose (frame) an alternate metaphysics, one beyond the banal "beyond" of typical (and typically unquestioned) idealized worlds, including the one referenced through the crypto-Pythagorean veneration of mathematical relationships.

Here's an idealized mundus alter of plywood, studs, and badly-welded, gravity-defying steel tubes.

Think of this as a petty homage to de Chirico, specifically
The Nostalgia of the Infinite of 1912.

I have noticed, incidentally,
signs that a certain reaction against script-driven models is developing...perhaps the beginning of a typical tidal surge of architectural floccinaucinihilipilification (yes, that is a word).

LINK to Picasa Web Album for this post.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Pavilion for Oblivion

First post! For no particular reason other than the fact that I'm still fond of it, I'll begin with a project from nearly a year ago.

An upright stone in a puddle of rainwater...or two, or five stones...a few fragments of a curving wall, a capstone precariously balanced across the uprights, defying time and gravity, a banked platform, perhaps even a path (to where?) marked out by yet another set of stones.

Is this a work of architecture? Was it a work of architecture, two, three, or nearly five thousand years ago? It's a pile of rocks, but it had a meaning to the nameless figures who dragged the rude megaliths up from the valley, excavated the ditch with spades of deer antlers, who marked the path, who left their stone axes and the bones of their leaders or their scapegoats tucked in odd corners. We can survey the remaining stones; we can look for alignments with the stars or mountain peaks that might or might not have been sacred; we can carbon test the splinters of wood left in a post hole long filled. We can never really know what was intended here, what they meant in doing this. Yet the significance is there, in the leaning stones, the path, the post holes...we can feel it. It's still there, but we can no more define it than we can speak the language of the builders or understand their vanished world.

I do not like the term “spirit of place,” which seems overused now...but if there is such a thing, a ghost of intent with an objective presence independent of its forgotten, long-demised creators and their whole swept-away milieu, it lingers in such fragments and such places.

It is difficult at this point to imagine that I will ever in my foreshortened career undertake a project with more than a transitory financial significance to its owner, let along an ineffable meaning that will outlast me and my whole civilization. But I can imagine how I might approach such a I could evoke this ghost of intention, with the means and materials I believe I understand as a man of my own time.

So let me start with the same elemental fragments and gestures: a path, marked irregularly, almost unmarked, by found megaliths, across the flat top of the hill...for the initiate, or for those to be initiated?...a gateway and threshold, also elemental...the gate is into the Other Space, a foyer to a sacral world, perhaps (but it doesn't really matter which sacral world, does it?). The space of transition beyond the gate is a circle...and because I am modern, I have the stones kept from falling into the space with heavy oxidizing steel plates and wide-flange steel columns embedded into the concrete platform. There is yet another “elemental” guardian, a single low, tooth-like stone on axis with the first threshold, in a small reflecting pool like that which would form around it on a sodden moor (even though here it is a pool in a concrete platform)...and beyond, on a different platform, on a different axis (or none at all, to mark the change in the Path), another pool, under the oculus of a precarious-seeming (but actually rather overbuilt) structure of plywood sheathing, monoplanar trusses, and steel sections...a pool reflecting just the misty sky...Beyond the pool are stairs down to the edge of the world, or perhaps just a view into it.

Eventually of course the trusses will weaken, the sheathing blow down the hill in a storm, the steel melt away in red and orange stains, the concrete complete its karmic return as sand and gravel. What will be left? A few upright stones, a few fragments of a curving wall, a path...and the ghost of intent.
To my great surprise, this project--images and words--appeared in the "Fantasy Architecture" theme issue of AIArchitect, July 27, 2007.

LINK: Picasa Web Album page for this project